Movie Review: Avatar: The Way of Water

Plot: More than ten years after the Na’vi repelled the forces of Earth’s RDA, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has settled into a quiet domestic life with his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) as leader of the Omaticaya people. Now with four children including sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and adopted daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), Jake believes that peace has come at last to Pandora. That all changes when the RDA returns with the intent of preparing Pandora for Earth’s colonization. After raging a guerrilla war for over a year, Jake and his family are forced to flee their homes and take refuge with the Metkayina water clan. Meanwhile, the avatar version of Jake’s old foe Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) doggedly pursues his nemesis hoping to wipe him out once and for all.

Review: So, I keep having this daydream. I’m a wealthy businessman who likes to gamble. I walk into the Bellagio in Las Vegas and say, “Give me $10,000 on James Cameron.” Despite the attendant’s insistence that I am in fact at a roulette table, somehow, I succeed and increase my winnings tenfold. The suckers at the table who thought I was certifiably nuts, slowly walk away with sullen looks on their faces and nothing but air and lint in their pockets. Once again, these naysayers have learned a lesson that should be patently obvious by now.

Never bet against James Cameron.

Thirteen years ago, James Cameron’s visually groundbreaking science fiction film Avatar hit theaters and rolled on to critical acclaim and massive success at the box office, raking in close to $3 billion worldwide. Was the plot somewhat derivative? Sure…but so are a lot of superhero films. “Dances with Smurfs in Space”? I don’t give a shit. I loved it. Yet even I was taken aback when Cameron announced that not one but FOUR Avatar sequels were on the way. Had hubris gotten the best of old Jimbo? Would anyone care enough to show up anymore?

I should have remembered the aforementioned statement above.

Once again James Cameron delivers a groundbreaking visual feast for the eyes that pushes the boundaries of what’s possible on the big screen. A true spectacle in every sense of the word, Avatar: The Way Of Water reminds us (as cliché as it sounds) why we go to the movies in the first place. In an age where people are content to simply stream at home, this movie demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Much like this year’s Top Gun: Maverick, you are doing yourself a huge disservice by not catching this one in theaters. Avatar: The Way of Water is so visually astounding that I’m half convinced Cameron and cinematographer Russell Carpenter filmed this sucker on another planet. The underwater scenes are just as astonishing as you’ve heard. The hype is real.

While Avatar: The Way of Water possesses some of the same beats as the original film, it still feels more emotionally thematic than the first Avatar. This is due in large part to the script’s focus which deals mostly with the Sully clan family dynamic, specifically Jake’s children.  In fact, a large portion of the movie is devoted to Jake’s son Lo’ak who feels like a disappointment to his father and a perpetual outcast, especially once the Sullys relocate to the coast. I loved Lo’ak’s arc, particularly his relationship with a sentient whale-like creature named Payakan. It’s a representation of one of The Way of Water’s overriding themes, mainly finding your place in the world, especially when you feel like an outcast. Kudos to Britain Dalton who is excellent here. Weaver’s Kiri also follows a similar path. She appears to have a direct connection to Eywa, the deity of the Na’vi people. Although Weaver delivers an excellent performance that’s in stark contrast to her previous role as Grace Augustine, much of her story feels like a setup for the next Avatar film.

The thing that really impresses me the most about these two films, particularly The Way of Water is even though the world-building is vast in scope, the story feels surprisingly intimate. Cameron wisely keeps the focus on the Sully family and their exploits. Consequently, you feel for their plight and their tribulations, especially when tragedy strikes. As an audience member, you genuinely care. You can’t just have a three-hour CGI fest that’s devoid of any emotional investment. Thankfully, that’s something Cameron eschews.

This isn’t to say Avatar: The Way of Water is perfect. Far from it. The run time comes off as bloated and overindulgent. You could have easily dropped twenty minutes and not lost any of the majesty. Cameron’s film definitely lags in the middle and some of the film feels like laying the groundwork for the upcoming sequels rather than an investment in the movie at hand. Edie Falco’s General Ardmore lacks malice and isn’t nearly the threat Quaritch poses. She seems superfluous. I also was somewhat annoyed at how Saldana’s Neytiri gets sidelined, especially when she was such an integral part of the first film.

Thankfully, Avatar: The Way of Water ends with a triumphant third act that is a balls-to-the-wall action extravaganza. The tacit animosity between Quaritch and Jake builds incrementally so that when the inevitable confrontation hits, it hits hard. It will be interesting to see how this character evolves in the upcoming sequels. I really love Lang’s performance as Quaritch even in avatar form. He always feels menacing and a legitimate threat. A tip of the cap as well to Simon Franglen’s score. Franglen didn’t have an easy task taking over for the late James Horner and while his music has echoes of Horner’s original, it never comes off as dogmatic or derivative.

Overall, I was extremely pleased with Avatar: The Way of Water, even if it wasn’t as good as the original. However, it nevertheless succeeds as an excellent science fiction yarn and deserves to be seen on the widest screen possible. Bring on the sequels!

My rating system:

God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad

2 Straight Garbage

3 Bad

4 Sub Par

5 Average

6 Ok

7 Good

8 Very Good

9 Great

10 A Must See

Avatar: The Way of Water: 8/10